The Nibelungenlied: Betrayal

Four thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man.
-Klingon Proverb

Death of Sigurd from Neuschwanstein Castle

Siegried’s deception, discussed last time, brought the hero to his doom. For when that deception became known, the honour and dignity of two proud women was disturbed. And so the violent, vengeful Brunhilde decides to take Siegfried down. She goes to her husband and his retainers and successfully recruits Hagen of Tronege to her cause. The Lord of Tronege convinces Gunther to join him in the next deception of the epic. This time, it is Siegfried and Kriemhilde who will be deceived.

First, Hagen tricks Kriemhilde into revealing unto him Siegfried’s weakness. You see, when Siegfried bathed in Fafnir’s blood and his skin grew hard and uncuttable, a linden leaf was on his back between his shoulder blades. This is basically a Germanic Achilles’ heel. Like Kryptonite. Sort of. Anyway, on the grounds that Hagen wants to protect Siegfried in an upcoming faux-battle, he acquires this information from Kriemhilde. After the battle fails to materialise, everyone goes hunting. After Siegfried pretty much clears the forest of all its fauna, the most famous part of the epic occurs:

Siegfried’s death from Fritz Lang’s silent film ‘Nibelungen’

The Death of Siegfried. The death of, as one documentary puts it, the Germanest hero of all. I’m not, mind you, sold on the idea that Siegfried is the deutschster hero and the Nibelungenlied the deutschster epic. But that’s what they say. This scene, this episode, was the basis for the first of the operas Wagner composed for the Ring Cycle. Originally to be The Death of Siegfried, it is now Götterdämmerung.

This betrayal cuts deep and its aftermath is the entire second half of the epic.

It is also a direct consequence of the deception in last post. When modern critics of the poem praise Siegfried to the sky, they fail to miss this. They fail to notice that it is not simply the betrayal of his friends, of Hagen and Gunther, that brings about Siegfried’s death. It is not just the jealousy and envy of a powerful woman. It is his own action. Siegfried’s death is a consequence of Siegfried’s life. Once again, although he qualifies as one of the great and mighty men of epic and heroic literature, is he meant to be a shining beacon of light, truth, and virtue? Or are the deception on his part and the subsequent betrayal meant to subvert the vision of the mighty man? Do we actually have, embedded in this undoubtedly heroic epic, a criticism of the typical construction of masculinity in heroic literature? Does our ‘final poet’ – or his predecessors – subvert, just a little, the great epic hero to make us rethink what virtus, ‘manliness’, really is?

For Hagen, the betrayer, proves himself as cunning and mighty in battle as Siegfried throughout the epic, especially in the second half. Yet he is the one who literally stabs Siegfried in the back. He is otherwise a loyal, proud warrior, who is a fantastic jouster in the book’s many, many jousts, and a skilled swordsman. But when the terrible vengeance and slaughter of the second half of the epic play out, Hagen of Tronege falls prey to the consequences of his own actions as well. His betrayal of Siegfried and his attempts to escape his fate drive the rest of the book. But he knows that he, too, will die. All of our actions have consequences, and no matter how mighty a warrior a man is, those consequences can catch up to him.

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